Applying the Design Thinking Process to Product Stewardship
Product stewards don’t typically think of themselves as designers. Although product stewards are responsible for the entire product lifecycle, they are generally charged with managing the impacts of existing products, including effects on consumer health, downstream effects, and supply chains.
However, product stewards might benefit from the process of design thinking—a methodology originally intended to help designers create products that meet users’ needs but can be used to develop effective, user-centered solutions to a range of problems. Rebecca Morones, CPPS, describes design thinking as “a type of framework to help you identify processes or a way to figure out a solution to a problem.” She and Arkadiy Tsfasman, PMP, have used the design thinking process extensively in their work at IBM, where Morones is a senior product environmental steward engineer, and Tsfasman is a senior technical staff member and master inventor. They’ve found it a flexible process that integrates stakeholder feedback into the development of effective product stewardship solutions.
What Is Design Thinking?
Design thinking is split up into three overarching categories—understand, explore, and materialize—that, in turn, are subdivided into six phases—empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. During the “empathize” phase, a person or a team researches and collaborates with stakeholders within and outside their organization. In the “define” phase, researchers evaluate the previous phase’s findings and identify a problem that stakeholders are experiencing. In the “ideate” phase, researchers produce ideas to solve the problem. Solutions are modeled or developed more fully in the “prototype” phase and trialed in the “test” phase, at which point the researchers reconnect with their stakeholders for feedback. When the researchers and stakeholders agree on an effective solution, it’s put into effect in the “implement” phase.
Morones and Tsfasman make clear that design thinkers don’t have to follow the six phases in the same order for every project. Moreover, the researcher or team of researchers don’t have to prototype or test a physical object; they can also design and test ideas, processes, procedures, and regulations, which they then refine in response to stakeholders’ input. “You can start almost at any state,” said Morones. For example, if you wanted to track data indicating compliance with a regulation, “you can start from testing [like] you normally do and see if it's going to work for that regulation,” she explained. “If it's not, you can go back to ideate or empathize.”
This flexibility means that diverse organizations and individuals can adjust the design thinking process to their needs. Anyone using the methodology can decide what “empathizing,” “ideating,” or any other steps will look like in their unique situation. “Nothing is off the table when you're first starting out, and then you narrow it down based on the stakeholders, which could be your customers, can be your business itself,” Morones said. “So anyone, I feel, can use it in their business, whether they're a large corporation or whether they're a small ten-person company.”
Tsfasman agreed. “You're not locked into one solution,” he stressed.
Design Thinking at IBM
Morones and Tsfasman cited a project they’d worked on at IBM in which they found design thinking particularly useful. IBM had tasked them to identify a chemical in a product for which the company was required to provide a warning label under California’s Proposition 65 law—subsequently, removing the chemical allowed IBM to provide the product without the warning label. For Morones and Tsfasman, this project emphasized another strength of design thinking: the involvement of stakeholders and professionals from other fields in finding the solution.
In addition to product stewards, “all the stakeholders are there for this design thinking process as well,” Morones stressed. “You need to actually engage with your company a little more to get this, but eventually, you'll come up with a solution that works.”
Initially, IBM’s testing team had believed that an epoxy resin had caused the chemical of concern within the product. After several years, multiple rounds of testing, and securing the help of IBM’s material science division, they found that the culprit was actually a flame retardant that hydrolyzed in air at room temperature. According to Morones, working with the material scientists had allowed the testing team to figure this out. When the team had started the project, they had worked within a limited group, but “when we started to seek other people to help us identify this [chemical],” she said, “it created new thoughts and new processes that we were able to test and try.”
Tsfasman remarked on the involvement of IBM’s legal department to ensure that testing met all the regulatory requirements for the label’s removal. “They were joining us in this design thinking process, and they wanted to make sure that we [did] enough iterations to prove that, ‘OK, you did some sample of testing, is it really safe to remove the label?’” Tsfasman explained. “Because they want to make sure that from [their point] of view, we don't get in trouble.”
He felt that design thinking enabled a more thorough, collaborative decision-making process that discouraged the testing team from developing tunnel vision. “Utilizing this strategy allows us to open up,” he said. “And it helps us to, at the end, improve the quality of the product going out.”
Design Thinking in Product Stewardship
At IBM, design thinking is integrated into the company’s culture. In fact, IBM employees take classes in design thinking. Tsfasman and Morones, however, believe that the wider product stewardship profession will benefit from learning the process. Morones suggested that, in addition to product testing, it might be applicable in creating regulations and meeting corporate sustainability goals—including by rolling back projects and initiatives for reassessment if they turn out to be infeasible. At IBM, design thinking had also been instrumental in helping the company meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s reporting requirements for per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS). The framework’s versatility means that it can be used to develop and test solutions to problems, seek out feedback, and redevelop and retest, if necessary, in a variety of professional and non-professional scenarios.
“I think you can use design thinking for almost everything work related [and] probably actually use it in your own life, too, at home,” she said. “You want to design new landscaping in your house? What are the ways to look at it? What are the pros and cons?”
Tsfasman offered design thinking as a useful framework for the increasingly virtual workplace environment, especially when supported by tools ranging from those as low-tech as a wipe board and markers to sophisticated software programs. After all, communication is critical to design thinking. “It all starts from communication,” he said. “I think communication is huge, and that usage of those tools facilitates that quite a bit.”
The hoped-for result is more efficient decision-making. “What we're trying to achieve,” said Tsfasman, “is that when other companies or their stakeholders are having issues, they could implement the [design thinking] steps in their process in the future and be able to achieve solutions in a faster way, a more economical way.”
At PSX 2023, Rebecca Morones, CPPS, and Arkadiy Tsfasman, PMP, will host Session A1, “Resolving Environmental Compliance Issues Using the Design Thinking Process” on Tuesday, October 17, 2023, from 10 to 11 a.m., Eastern time. PSX 2023 will be held October 17–19 at Westin Boston Seaport District in Boston. To view the program or to register, visit the conference website.